Sunday, July 05, 2015

Growing Pains

This story has been kicking around for a few weeks. I only know about it because a friend drew it to my attention:

I didn't know about it because, frankly, I don't keep tabs on Kirk Cameron. 

I'm of two minds about discussing it. It may not be worth commenting on. But sometimes it's worth commenting on something that's not worth commenting on–paradoxical as that sounds. 

However, I'm going to comment because he repeats an objection to the culture wars that's popular with some nearsighted evangelicals.

In principle, Cameron's opinion carries the same weight as Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, and Matt Damon. Being a Hollywood actor doesn't make your opinion any wiser than anyone else's opinion. Being famous doesn't make you well-informed for far-sighted. 

I know precious little about Cameron. From what I've read, he's a former child star. In his heyday, he was touted as a "heartthrob." I'll have to take the word of (no longer) adolescent girls on that. 

Like many child stars, he hasn't had much of a career after sprouting peach fuzz. I guess he stared in the gold-plated turkeys of the Left Behind franchise. World Mag panned Fireproof

In fairness, there aren't many Christian Hollywood actors, so he probably feels he has a responsibility to present a public Christian witness. And that's commendable in principle. But he needs to know his limitations. He seems to be the Pat Boone of his generation: a third-tier actor who stared in some cheesy, forgettable Christian films, then became a social commentator. 

Getting to the substance:

"When people get too focused on redefining marriage, you're distracted from the bigger problem - fornicators and adulterers," Cameron said.
"If the people sitting in the pews are fornicators and adulterers, the church will destroy marriages much more quickly than those outside the church. When God's people mock marriage, God doesn't take that lightly."
Cameron declined to criticize gay marriage and same-sex unions, saying that's not a priority.
"I think the greatest threat to marriage is not other people's definition of marriage," Cameron said in an interview with "The church isn't taking God's definition of marriage seriously. It's not other people sabotaging marriage that's the problem."
"The church determines the moral temperature of the culture," he said. "On our watch we've let morality decay, the commitment to love and marriage fall apart. We've given in to an anti-biblical Christian worldview. We're simply failing to do our job as the church. Other people are moving into the leadership positions and steering the car right off the cliff. They're not the problem. It's those in the church who have taken their hands off the wheel and given up our place in the driver's seat."
The church has to reform itself in order to reform society, Cameron said.
"We need to be faithful in our own house," he said. "Jesus didn't go shouting at the Romans. He went into the temple. We have the same problem today that people had back then. We've had pastors drop like flies, guys I know. When that happens, it drags the name of Christ through the mud. When hypocrisy grows within the church, it's like pouring fertilizer on the weeds in your garden."

This may be well-intentioned, but it's hopelessly confused. 

i) I don't think it's coincidental that Cameron is not a pastor. If he were one, he'd realize the difficulties. 

Consider a typical situation: a minister takes a pastorate. That means he's taking the helm of a preexisting church, with an established congregation. All the members (or attendees) are initially strangers to him. They became members before he came on board.

It's not as if they sport t-shirts that say "I'm a fornicator!" "I'm an adulterer!"

It's unclear what Cameron thinks a pastor should do in that situation. Does he think a pastor should reinterview all the members?

A new pastor doesn't know which members were divorced, or why. In some cases, they had biblical grounds.

But even if the divorce and/or remarriage was sinful, that doesn't mean the new marriage is continuously sinful. Likewise, some of them were unbelievers before they got divorced or remarried.

Certainly it's a pastor's job to preach Christian sexual ethics. But pastoral authority is ultimately moral authority. Persuasion. He can't make anyone agree with him or do his bidding.

Undoubtedly there are many evangelical churches that need to tighten up their membership standards. And there are many evangelical churches that are lax on church discipline.

But even if all evangelical pastors were doing their job, even if all of them were able to do their job, a pastor in 21C American has no real power over what people do. Errant church members can be excommunicated. And that's good for the spiritual integrity of the church. But there's no social stigma, no social sanction, attached. 

ii) If a pastor has limited influence over his congregation, he has even less direct influence over the general culture. At best, there's an aggregate influence, if enough pastors say what needs to be said. 

Cameron uses metaphors and catchphrases like "On our watch we've let morality decay" and "Other people are moving into the leadership positions and steering the car right off the cliff. It's those in the church who have taken their hands off the wheel and given up our place in the driver's seat."

What does that even mean? What's he referring to? Does the car stand for the church or the general culture? It's not as if pastors were ever in the driver's seat of the general culture. 

Likewise, in what sense did we "let" morality decay? It's not as if Christians can unilaterally forbid social decay. We don't have that kind of control. If we mobilize our resources, we can exert a great deal of influence–yet that's the very thing that Cameron decries.

iii) He indulges in sweeping, scurrilous generalities about "the church." But "the church" isn't any one thing. There are many denominations, as well as tens of thousands of churches. Theey range along a spectrum from good to bad or middling. He assigns blanket blame to "the church," but that's inaccurate and unjust.

iv) The accelerated decadence of American culture is largely imposed from the top down by the power elite. For instance, there's no massive grassroots movement for homosexual "marriage" or unisex bathrooms and locker rooms. Indeed, there was strong popular pushback against homosexual "marriage" even in blue or purple states. It took dictatorial judicial intervention to thwart those movements. 

v) There's also the insinuation that unless the church gets its own house in order, it lacks the moral authority to comment on the general culture. That, however, is mistaken on two grounds:

a) Cameron's hasty generalization about the state of "the church."

b) The fact that this isn't based on personal moral authority, but divine moral authority. 

vi) In addition, you have Cameron's witless false dichotomy, as if problems within "the church" mean other people are not the problem. That's so simpleminded. It's a complete non sequitur. If the power elite is judicially or legally redefining marriage, if executive agencies are enforcing that policy, then they are a major part of the problem. This isn't redefining marriage in a dictionary, as if it's just about the meaning of a word. Rather, this is about law and public policy. If gov't is using its coercive power to sabotage the institution of marriage, then that's most assuredly a problem in its own right. 

At the risk of stating the obvious, that would still be a problem apart from whatever the church does, because that would be happening apart from whatever the church does. Secular totalitarians don't take their cue from the church. They have an independent agenda. And it's an agenda they vigorously prosecute in spite of the church. 

vii) Likewise, you have Cameron's knuckleheaded notion that "the church" should get its house in order first, before we turn our attention to the culture wars. But by then it's too late. It's not as if secular totalitarians will stop the clock while we sort things out internally, then graciously let us reenter the race. We can't let current trends go unchallenged, then revisit the issue at a later date. You can't lose the culture, but save the church. If you lose the culture, then to a great extent you lose the church. To some degree, Christians are inevitably the product of the culture they are born into, and must function in. The church isn't cloistered from society at large. And that's exacerbated by gov't agencies that clamp down on Christian parenting. 

viii) To say the church needs to reform itself is useless, circular advice. The good people in church already do about as much good as they can. And the people who aren't doing good will continue not doing good, because they lack that sense of commitment. Who does Cameron think he's talking to? The people who agree with him don't need to hear what he has to say, while the people who disagree won't listen in the first place. 

The people who share his outlook are already on his side, doing the best they can–while the people who don't share his outlook don't care what he says. That kind of rhetoric doesn't move the needle a millimeter. 


  1. When Jesus' life on earth ended, had he caused the world of his day to stop being immoral? When the apostles died, the Roman empire was still corrupt. Does that mean the apostles failed to do what they should have done on their watch, took their hands off the wheel, etc.?

    I suspect that Kirk Cameron and others who argue along these lines (many people do it) are largely relying on some Biblical principles taken out of context. There are many Old Testament passages about how responsible the religious leaders of Israel were for the depraved state of their nation, for example. But religious leaders in a culture like the United States aren't in as high of a social position as the religious leaders of ancient Israel. Furthermore, modern Americans aren't nearly as dependent on their religious leaders as people were in ancient Israel. We have a far higher literacy rate, much better technology, much more access to information, etc. I see no rational way to avoid the conclusion that church leaders in a culture like the United States are significantly less responsible than church leaders have been in contexts like ancient Israel, whereas laymen are now significantly more responsible than they were in Biblical times. Circumstances have changed, and we need to make adjustments accordingly. Only about twenty percent of Americans attend church weekly (research has shown that about half of the forty percent who claim to attend church are lying), and many of those are attending non-Evangelical churches. Evangelical pastors have somewhat of an influence on American culture, but not a lot.

    There are some New Testament passages about judgment beginning with the house of God, not judging outsiders, etc., but, once again, those principles need to be kept in context. The same Biblical authors criticize the Jewish and pagan culture of their day, tell their readers to shine as lights in their corrupt culture, tell their readers to confront the world's sin at the same time that they're addressing sin within the church, etc. It's true that we don't judge outsiders in the sense of having certain types of authority over them and disciplining them, but Jesus, the apostles, and other Biblical figures frequently tell us to judge outsiders in other ways (John the Baptist's criticisms of Herod; Paul criticizing the pagan authorities he interacted with by calling them to repent; Paul opposing his pagan opponents in legal contexts, including by asserting his innocence and claiming rights as a Roman citizen; Paul telling the Ephesians to expose deeds of darkness; the apostle John's criticisms of the Roman empire in Revelation; etc.). The Christians of the patristic era frequently did the same. See, for example, the criticisms of Jewish and Roman culture found in Justin Martyr and Tertullian. They were aware of corruption within the church and sometimes discussed it. That didn't prevent them from criticizing the culture and trying to transform it.

  2. FWIW I think it's well-intentioned and generally commendable when a Christian has a fairly large public platform to use it for the sake of the kingdom, however it's possible in these situations for the Christian to misfire, and seem to do more damage to the cause of Christ than good, especially if he's naive and uninformed about the topic(s) on which he opines.

    Unfortunately Kirk's friend Ray Comfort has also had more than his fair share of gaffes.

    But at the end of the day I'd still prefer to see boldness and speaking out rather than timidity and silence. The Lord can even use the gaffes and foolishness of His people to advance His cause, and His power is perfected in our weakness.